TRENTON — Gov. Phil Murphy has a new message for New Jersey residents: "Take the damn call."

Not mincing words, Murphy on Friday implored people to cooperate with contact tracers, who are racing against the clock to alert people who may have been exposed to the coronavirus.

Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said Friday that a majority of people that contact tracers reach — 52% — are refusing to cooperate.

Heath officials say that contact tracers simply want to inform people who may have been exposed in order to get them tested and prevent further spread. Contact tracers will not ask about personal financial information or issue fines.

"Our contact tracers only care about protecting public health. They care about protecting you, your family and friends," Murphy said Friday. "This is not a witch hunt."

Earlier in the summer, Murphy said that fear of getting in trouble over underage drinking kept people from cooperating with contact tracers in Middletown after an outbreak was reported among young people there.

This week, several students at Kingsway Regional High School in Gloucester County tested positive for the coronavirus. The district superintendent said the students had attended a party in Sea Isle City on Aug. 13.

Superintendent James Lavender said the district was having difficulty determining the extent of the exposure, suggesting that there was a lack of cooperation.

"Unfortunately, inconclusive and intermittent social media posts have become our best resource of information, exhausting both education and health officials throughout the process," he said in a letter to parents, asking that any students who attended the party to isolate for for 14 days.

"Although we are in a summer recess, our students are presently engaged in multiple activities, camps and athletic practices … [T]hey risk transmitting this virus to their peers, coaches and family members," Lavender said.

Persichilli said 19% of calls by contact tracers go unanswered.

Tracers have been able to reach 53% of contacts.

The state employs about 18 contact tracers for every 100,000 residents.

Gyms reopening soon?

Murphy continued to tease a fuller reopening of fitness centers, which along with indoor dining and theaters, are one of the few businesses that remain under the strictest restrictions.

In New York, officials are allowing gyms to begin to reopen starting Monday. New York City expects its gyms to start reopening Sept. 2.

Murphy on Friday hinted that New Jersey might have its own development on gyms soon but said that New York's decisions would not play a role.

"I think we are getting very close on some steps we can take and gyms will be on that list," he said. "I'm not sure we are going to be learning a lot from the New York experience. We make our decision based on the reality in the four walls of New Jersey."

State health officials have said that the activities and length of time that people spend in the confines of gyms, bars, theaters and restaurants makes these locations some of the most dangerous sites for spreading the virus.

NJ donating drugs, adding to stockpile

In other news on Friday, Murphy said the state would be donating 148 cases with 6,000 doses of the COVID-19 drug remdesivir to 10 states and the Virgin Islands. The state will have 1,115 cases of the drug.

Murphy said the state continues to build its stockpile in order to prepare for a potential second wave of the pandemic later this year.

The state is storing 4.7 million N95 masks, just shy of it's goal of 5 million masks.

The state is ordering 12 million surgical masks to add to its stockpile of 1 million. The state is also ordering another 300,000 face shields, 1 million hospital gowns and 75 million gloves.

New utility extension

The state's utilities, meanwhile, agreed to extend their voluntary moratorium on cut-offs for nonpayment to Oct. 15.

Customers in arrears, however, may receive shutoff warning after Sept. 15.

Murphy on Friday said utility companies were offering deferred payment agreements of 12 to 24 months with no down payments.

On Friday, New Jersey's death toll from COVID-19 stood at 14,112 with another 1,829 deaths under investigation. Eleven hospital-reported deaths had been recorded since Thursday.

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